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When I Resolved to Talk Like a Lady, I Learned Why Our Words Really Matter

How to fix that sailor’s mouth before it’s too late

“And he was all like, ‘F*** YOU!’” I emphatically shared to an audience of jovial, liquored-up friends at a loud bar one Friday night.

Oh, wait. No. No, I wasn’t at a bar. I was at Christmas Eve dinner eating on pristine holiday china. I had donned a red cashmere sweater dress with pearls. If only my pronouncement were as polished as my ensemble. My audience was my stunned family—including my gentlehearted, classy, and very sweet 80-year-old Southern grandmother. Mouths were agape in utter awe. They could not believe what they had just heard. Did she just say what I think she said?

My father seemed to teeter between shock and amusement. My mother, blushing, was drowning in embarrassment. My grandparents were scandalized. My sister was both flabbergasted and tickled. My husband—new to the family—didn’t know what to do. He sat there like he was on an awkward first date. My teenage brothers were beside themselves with laughter.

It was then that I had my first clue that I might have a bit of a swearing problem.

Now, allow me to put the severity of my blunder in its proper context. I grew up in a household with a mother who, if she was militant about one thing, was militant about using proper language. To us, the “s word” was “stupid,” and the “b word” was “butt” (it’s called a “bottom!”). I didn’t know what the word “fart” meant until I was about 10 years old. My classmates were merciless when they made fun of me after I told them I thought that was the “f word.” (Fourth-graders are mean, man.)

Oh, how far I have come since then.

Please believe me when I say I’m not writing this with a judging, hall-monitor mentality. Though cursing too much is definitely a bad habit, it’s no evil addiction. And while I do sympathize with my mother’s hatred of foul language, I should note that I do ultimately differ from her on this subject. I, for one, believe that when the right situation calls for it, nothing can replace a properly placed expletive. With all children and my grandmother out of the room, of course. Sometimes, when you’re trying to emphasize a point or a particular feeling, it’s the mot juste.

Rhett Butler’s infamous line, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” wouldn’t exactly ring the same as, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a gosh darn.” Can I get a f--- yeah? Er, I mean . . . an amen?

And would J. D. Salinger’s brilliance in The Catcher in the Rye manifest itself as well without Holden Caulfield’s cursing rants?

Expletives, I believe, have their place. But, in real life, they’re a bit like jalapeños. A little goes a long, long way. My mother had no tolerance for jalapeños, but as an adult, I’ve grown to believe that it’s nice to add a little kick here and there—for emphasis’ sake. But be warned: If you use them carelessly, you can completely kill the flavor of a meal.

Or in my case, Christmas Eve dinner.

It was clear that I had become seriously careless with my language. My habits were so ingrained that I didn’t even realize I had said anything wrong until I felt the mood in the room go from warm to flash-freeze ice. “Ohh . . . whoa, whoops!” I said once I realized what I had done. As the gravity of what I said sunk in, I felt a lump form in my throat. “I’m so sorry . . . I just got carried away . . .” I shrunk into the dining room chair, humiliated.

My dad kindly looked at me, with a cross between a smile and a wince, and said, “I think you’ve developed a bad habit, my dear.” There. My branded shame seared my insides. I realized at this moment that it was time to change. I know, it wasn’t so much the word that bothered my father. (I learned most of my curse words from overhearing him.) It was the lack of self-control and thoughtlessness I demonstrated that disappointed him. I had lost my discipline. And with it, I had lost my ability to speak like a lady.

Like it or not, people judge us for what we say. If we speak like children, we appear like children. I may have come across as an absentminded adolescent. But I’ve got the maturity, grace, and refinement that a full-grown woman has earned with time and trials. Why would I sell that short and at a special annual family gathering, no less?

Conveniently for me, Christmas is a week away from New Year’s Day. This is the day of promises and resolutions. This year, 2015, I found a better goal than losing ten pounds.

Eight months later, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of cleaning up my dirty mouth. While it wasn’t exactly easy, I’m surprised by how much I’ve learned about myself through this exercise. Here’s how I did it—and what I learned.

01. I identified why I cursed.

When it comes to changing habits, this first step is something we can often overlook. But I realized that if I were to fix this problem for good, I had to dig deep and figure out why I swear. In fact, easing into new habits results in longer lasting success than going cold turkey. After some contemplation, I discovered that the reasons for my swearing were a mix of a few things. It came down to fitting in, shock value, and remnants of good old teenage rebellion.

Fitting in? Aren’t you, like, an adult? Isn’t peer pressure so ten years ago? Well, sort of. I’ve spent a large chunk of my twenties working at advertising agencies. If you’ve ever watched Mad Men, you know that ad agencies reek of “edginess.” Language is loose. In an ad pitch for a large shoe brand, we actually had a foot giving its “middle toe.” Why? To emphasize how people who wear this shoe brand really don’t give a s--t. People say sex sells. I say shock value does the same thing. While I love the advertising industry despite (and maybe for) its craziness, I wasn’t cognizant of how much the environment rubbed off on me. It wasn’t until I took a step back that I realized why I hadn’t noticed cursing creeping into my vernacular.

Once I could pinpoint when this habit started sliding south, I realized how silly my reasons for swearing were. Fitting in? As if my colleagues only appreciated me because I swore? Ridiculous. If anything, they might appreciate my creativity for branching out and using different words. As I headed into my late twenties, it was about time to put away my teenage tendencies. As for shock value, well . . . as I said, even expletives have their occasional place.

02. I realized why I wanted to change.

Sure, I wanted to speak like a lady again. But when I thought hard about why I wanted to change, it went back to that moment I disappointed my father. We both knew in that instant that I had an utter lack of discipline—and care—when it came to my choice of words. While discipline is important, for me, it wasn’t the best motivator.

But I am a people person. Once I saw that my lack of discipline translated to a lack of respect from those around me—like my poor grandmother—I realized that I needed to get into the habit of being more aware of my audience. I also became more self-aware of the tone I wanted to set. Realizing how my carelessness affected others motivated me to be better.

In other words, I needed to use empathy when I spoke. The ultimate definition of being a gracious lady (putting others first) was my main motivation. When I tied my desire for personal change with my desire to put others at ease, this motivation became more tangible.

Plus, I thought, one day small children are going to pitter-patter around the floor on Christmas Eve. Did I want to be that oblivious relative who taught the kids how to swear? No, thank you!

03. I had to learn the art of mindfulness.

With the right motivators behind me, I put more energy into being more particular with what left my lips. This was easier for casual conversations. When you speak slower, it’s easier to be careful about what you’re saying. When I was passionate, angry (particularly while driving), or in sudden pain, it was much, much harder to be mindful. Cursing in these instances had become a reflex.

Instead of punishing myself for my impulsive reactions, I gave myself some slack. I told myself that I got one curse word a day. This tiny stipulation helped a great deal. It enabled me to (a) wait for the worthy time to use that word, and (b) feel a bit of relief when I messed up. And mess up I did.

I also started to try and use ridiculous replacement words. Instead of the infamous “f word,” I would say “FRANCE,” which I found kind of funny. It was as if I were blaming an entire country for stubbing my toe, for instance. Slowly, the ridiculousness of saying that was more appealing than the shock value of saying the other word. Before I knew it, a day would go by without me using my one allotted curse word.

Eight months later, I can say that I have much more control over how I speak. It’s more than a relief; it’s a lifestyle change. Moreover, while I certainly tired of the “swearing is lazy” saying when I was a kid, there’s no denying that there’s at least some truth to it. Not swearing has enabled me to be a bit more creative and clever in my descriptions. A trained tongue has allowed me to see how self-mastery in one arena can help discipline other areas of my life. It might seem odd, but being more mindful about my language has allowed me to be more mindful about other bad habits—like snacking for no reason.

According to my sister, my parents still talk about that Christmas Eve dinner with both humor and shock. I will probably never be able to clear my reputation in our family folklore (you know how families are). But one thing’s for sure: Grandma will be proud of me this Christmas.